Does a library hold the copyright on an item it publishes?

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  • We have a small collection of family histories that were written by community members in the 1990s that were published by the library. Published means that the library director at the time provided editing and compiling services and used library materials and equipment to print and bind the books. Copies of the books were then added to the library's collection where they circulate just as any other book might.

    We have recently begun digitizing our local history collection and would like to include these books in the digital library. Does the library or the author of the family history hold the copyright? The title page of the books in question all include the library's name and publication date.

    Thanks in advance for any replies.
  • Unless there was an explicit, written transfer of copyright to the library, each community member continues to hold the copyright in the piece that she or he wrote. The library may hold a "thin" copyright in the compilation as such; see section 103(b) of the Copyright Act. That compilation copyright will not, I don't think, extend to allowing digitization of the individual essays.
  • Thank you for your reply and for the reference to section 103(b). That section would seem to apply to a particular case we have wherein the book title appears as being by person 'A' as told to person 'B'. Person 'B' is a compiler in such an instance and would not therefore hold the copyright to the content. Is that correct?

  • I think 103(b) applies more broadly to your situation. The "compiler" is any editor who collects material written by others and puts it into a collection. Thus the library director was the compiler of pre-existing material. The purpose of 103(b) is to make clear that the compiler (the library, in the person of its previous director) does not get a copyright interest in the pre-existing works (i.e. the family histories). If the library holds any copyright interest, it is only in the collection as such.
  • Thanks, ksmith. In this particular instance, person A was tape recorded and person B (the director) "wrote" the book based on the recordings. Does that change how you view things, or does the copyright stay with the woman who was recorded? She is now deceased, so we would ask her son for permission to include it in the digital library.
  • Thanks for clarifying the situation; sorry I did not understand this fully sooner. In any case, it does not change my analysis very much. Person A would have had a copyright in the fixation of her remarks -- the tape recording. When Person B "wrote the book" the question is whether s/he simply transcribed the recording or added any thing to it. In the former case, the transcription may be a derivative work, but there is likely only the one copyright, held by Person A. In the later case, Person B may also hold a copyright, solely in the original material he or she added. But in either case, to exploit the derivative work, some account must be made (probably by getting permission) of the copyright held by Person A

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